On June 1, 1927, a logger from Monroe, Wash., named Al Faussett rode over upper Spokane Falls in a hollowed-out spruce log christened the Skykomish Queen.
He survived, with injuries, but was thwarted in his desire to run the lower falls as well. You see, his craft was not equipped with any propulsion device, nor any means to control its direction. As a result, it ended up swirling about in an eddy.
This was just as well for Faussett, because after he was extracted from his "boat" and transferred to the hospital, the Queen eventually found its way into the current. On its journey down the cascade, it plunged sideways against a concrete pier of the old Milwaukee railroad bridge, where the log craft was smashed to splinters.
Who was this death-defier, this challenger of rapids? Faussett was a logger and waterfall enthusiast for whom the Spokane Falls was neither the first nor the last watery adventure. He had always been somewhat of a daredevil, and because of this, his wife of 19 years left him in March 1926 when Faussett announced that he would ride a canoe down the 275-foot Sunset Falls of the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Originally conceived to win $5,000 from MGM studios for a waterfall ride captured on film, Faussett decided he could make more money if he charged admission, made his own film and then toured the world showing his movie.
Besides, MGM withdrew its offer after the first respondent died before completing his stunt.
Prior to this plan, it is not known for certain if Faussett had ever been in a boat of any kind. Added to his lack of experience was the fact that Sunset Falls had never been attempted in any kind of craft and yet had already managed to kill 27 people who "wandered too close and fell in."
Undaunted, he carved a 32-foot dugout canoe out of a single log and attached several lateral "balancing poles." His intent was not to navigate the thing but to ride it down the cataract wherever the river current happened to carry him.
Following an aggressive marketing campaign, and a failed attempt to control the influx of unpaid onlookers (a la Woodstock), Al finally strapped himself into the original Skykomish Queen, attached the mouthpiece from his oxygen tank and shoved off. The date was May 30, 1926, and the South Fork was running at 4,800 cubic feet per second. He survived, though the Queen was thrown into the air and plunged beneath the water. He lost several teeth.
Faussett's dream of fame and fortune did not materialize from that escapade, but his desire to risk his life in pursuit of further adventure led him to run the two falls above Sunset -- Canyon Falls and Eagle Falls -- in the autumn of 1926. This was followed by Granite Falls on the South Fork of the Stillaguamish and upper Snoqualmie Falls.
During his brief visit to Spokane, local dignitaries wined and dined Faussett in fine fashion, and he got a nod from Angus McDonnell, the Chief of Police, for his "hare-brained stunt." The Spokesman-Review reported that his "boat will be equipped with fenders to prevent the rocks or concrete piers from smashing it." The craft "would also be thoroughly greased before entering the water, as a further precaution."
Faussett was quoted in the June 1 Spokesman saying, "I am not worrying the least bit over my trip over the falls tomorrow. It is baby's play compared to some of the trips I have taken... I believe it is going to be a bumpy ride...There is nothing at all to the upper falls, but there may be some danger at the lower falls."
Faussett possessed a healthy dose of chutzpah, but he was also a realist: "I probably will pass the hat among the spectators when I come up, because it is possible I may need some money to pay a doctor." He estimated that his ride over the lower falls would take about six seconds and that his boat would go end over end. Fortunately for him, he didn't get to test his theory.
Al had planned his ride for 3:30 in the afternoon "to give bankers and bank workers a chance to witness the stunt." He arrived dressed in a pair of green silk trunks, full-length gym socks and a Neversink air-filled life jacket. Ten minutes before the appointed hour, he got into his 14-foot craft that was held together by heavy iron straps. It included a trap door designed to shut automatically when it was hit by water. Once into the whitewater, Al would be ensconced inside, lying full length and attached to an oxygen tank.
The boat was pushed off the bank under the Howard Street Bridge and plunged 15 feet into the river, but it failed to be caught by the current. Al opened his trap door and requested help to push him out. While it circulated in the eddy, the boat started to fill with water and Al decided to abort his trip.
It was too late to abandon ship, however: The current gripped the log craft, and shot it down the falls. The crashing waters launched the Queen 20 feet into the air, turning it end-over-end before it disappeared beneath the foam. The craft finally erupted onto the surface where it became entrapped by the eddy on the north shore. In his efforts to move the boat back into the current, Al was struck in the head by the trap door -- a blunt end to his escapade.
The only other "successful" navigation of upper Spokane Falls was also performed by a daredevil loner named Terry Brauner during the World's Fair in 1974. He wrapped himself inside several large inner tubes, which entrapped and nearly killed him before he was rescued at the Washington Water Power generating station.
Almost a year after his visit to Spokane, Al Faussett piloted a new craft over Willamette Falls in Oregon; this voyage also resulted in a hospital visit. His last two accomplishments were 212-foot Shoshone Falls in Idaho and Celilo Falls on the Columbia (currently under water behind The Dalles Dam).
Al Faussett died in 1948 at age 72 while building a new Skykomish Queen. His plans for her: to ride Niagara Falls.
Daniel J. Schaffer is an urgent care physician with Group Health Cooperative and an avid whitewater boater. A version of this story first appeared in The NWA News, the newsletter of the Northwest Whitewater Association.